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An Empire of Law: Chancellor Kent and the Revolution in Books in the Early Republic


Daniel J. Hulsebosch


New York University School of Law

March 24, 2009

Alabama Law Review, Vol. 60, pp. 377-424, 2009
NYU School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 09-13

Abstract:     
Drawing on James Kent's law library, this Essay illuminates one aspect of the post-colonial British influence on early American legal culture: a revolution in books in the Atlantic world that coincided with the American Revolution. This book revolution was a condition precedent for the way that leading jurists like Chancellor Kent of New York conceived of law and also shaped the media through which they communicated law. The book revolution had many causes and resulted in an explosion of English print that spread across the Atlantic through the copyright-free haven of Dublin. This transatlantic network of copyright arbitrageurs - they should not be called "pirates" because they did not violate British law - made it possible for James Kent and other young lawyers with no personal connections to Great Britain to fill their libraries with the latest English law books at discount prices. As Kent struggled to make sense of these books, he developed an unusually print-oriented vision of the ideal legal order. He then translated what he learned - the substance as well as the vision - into his own reports and his four-volume Commentaries on American Law (1826-1830), which were available everywhere in the Union throughout the nineteenth century. In sum, this revolution facilitated the development of a trans-jurisdictional conception of law that Federalist jurists like Kent used to promote a new kind of empire: an empire of law in which law was conceived as a set of legal principles that should operate everywhere in the Union.

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Date posted: March 25, 2009  

Suggested Citation

Hulsebosch, Daniel J., An Empire of Law: Chancellor Kent and the Revolution in Books in the Early Republic (March 24, 2009). Alabama Law Review, Vol. 60, pp. 377-424, 2009; NYU School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 09-13. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1367645

Contact Information

Daniel J. Hulsebosch (Contact Author)
New York University School of Law ( email )
40 Washington Square South
503
New York, NY 10012-1099
United States
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